With a streaking Raptors team still dealing with injuries heading into Boston against a Celtics team on a three-game losing streak, and dealing with some drama, but finally getting mostly healthy, this game had the feeling of a potential trap heading into it. The Celtics, despite their struggles on the road all season long, had played well in their own building and with a nationally televised game against the team with the best record in the league, this had to look like an opportunity to right their ship in front of a large audience, and they certainly had lots of motivation to come out big in this game.
However, in the early going, it was the Raptors that got rolling, with the starters putting in the work defensively and generating offense off of it, and with Kawhi Leonard once again leading the way, with a couple of easy baskets in the early going, and a Pascal Siakam fastbreak dunk would force a Brad Stevens timeout in the first five minutes with the Raptors off to a 18-7 lead. The Celtics were able to settle down and start hitting some shots in the first quarter, but the Raptors held pace to a 36-30 lead after one, but that’s when the wheels came off.
Nick Nurse made the decision to open the second quarter with Kyle Lowry, Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam all on the bench, and the offense struggled to generate any good looks, as it has most of the season without the team’s primary creators on the floor. Boston was able to take a 42-40 lead before the Raptors changed things up, and use that and some tough shot-making to carry them to an 11-point halftime lead.
The Raptors stormed back with their starters in the third quarter, bringing the game back within five, before the bench gave them some good minutes to start the fourth and they were able to take their biggest lead of the second half, a 98-94 advantage, with 5:16 to go on Kawhi free throws, as he exerted his will on the game and proved to be too much for any defender the Celtics threw at him. However, Kyrie Irving matched him shot for shot in the fourth, and his playmaking proved too much as the Raptors couldn’t find any other offense late. Kyle Lowry missed an early shot clock three, followed by the Celtics going on a 17-4 run over the last four minutes to take the victory.
Lowry’s shot was ill-advised, and probably not the best shot with him not on his form in this game and looking like the back is still bothering him in the second half, and that’s certainly a place that could be pointed to for the cause of the defeat in this one, but the Raptors also couldn’t find a stop late, and they just ran out of steam against a talented Celtics team that was rolling.
As far as what went wrong and cost the Raptors the game, though, it seems reasonable to look back at that second quarter stretch. The Raptors had their rhythm going, and despite Boston shooting the lights out, the momentum was in Toronto’s favor and the crowd wasn’t engaged. The building wasn’t yet loud, and the Raptors held the upper hand. They chose to give that away by going to lineups that haven’t worked all season, and by putting their bench in a situation where they weren’t set to succeed. What happened after, where Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright weren’t able to initiate in the halfcourt against a talented defensive Celtics squad, was something that the team should’ve seen coming and didn’t anticipate.
Against a good team like Boston, especially in their building, you can’t give away minutes, and the Raptors just let too many go tonight without a fight, and that’s something that Nick Nurse will have to learn from. The Raptors bench hasn’t put up good numbers this season, but when used properly has been effective, and part of that is keeping guys who can get the bench offense rolling on the floor with the bench, and Nurse failed to do that tonight, and it ultimately cost them the game.